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Garland announces Justice Dept. probe into Minneapolis police

On April 21, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced an investigation into whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in "unlawful policing.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday announced a sweeping Justice Department probe into the practices and culture of the Minneapolis Police Department, elevating the federal government’s role a day after former officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of killing George Floyd.

Garland said the pattern-or-practice civil investigation would be conducted separately from an ongoing federal criminal probe opened during the Trump administration over whether the Black man’s civil rights were violated during his arrest and death last May.

The new examination will go beyond Floyd’s case, Garland said, to determine whether the Minneapolis department has engaged in systemic misconduct that constituted “unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”

“Nothing can fill the void the loved ones of George Floyd have felt since his death,” Garland said during brief remarks at Justice Department headquarters. “My heart goes out to them and to all those who have experienced similar loss.”

He added that “justice is sometimes slow, sometimes elusive and sometimes never comes. The DOJ will be unwavering in its pursuit of equal justice under the law.”

Derek Chauvin found guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd

The Minneapolis case marks the first federal probe into a local police department under President Biden after the Trump administration effectively halted any new investigations, saying such actions undermined the morale and effectiveness of police. Legal analysts and policing experts predicted more investigations to come under Biden amid a continued outcry from civil rights groups that abusive police tactics disproportionately target and harm communities of color.

Garland’s announcement was reminiscent of what occurred during the Obama administration, in which federal probes were launched after spasms of civil unrest over policing tactics. Justice opened probes into police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., after Black people were killed by officers or died in police custody.

Such investigations often took months or years to complete and generally resulted in local police departments reaching a court-enforced agreement with the Justice Department over changes. Some analysts have questioned the effectiveness of pattern-or-practice investigations. A Washington Post review in 2015 of such interventions found that they led to modernized policies, equipment and training, but they produced mixed results on the use of force.

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Garland said the civil investigation will examine whether Minneapolis police have engaged in excessive force or discriminatory conduct or abused those with mental illness or physical disabilities. Justice Department lawyers also will review tactics authorities used against protesters, including tear gas and other less-lethal weapons, in the mass street demonstrations that erupted in the city after Floyd’s death.

Yet such efforts also have produced political blowback at times from police unions and local police chiefs who have bristled at federal efforts to force changes in training and the use of force.

“Most officers do their jobs honorably and lawfully,” Garland said. “I strongly believe a good officer does not want to work in a system that allows bad practices. Good officers welcome accountability because accountability is an essential part in building trust with the local community, and public safety requires public trust.”

Officials said Garland waited until after the Chauvin verdict to announce the probe to avoid potentially influencing the jury. Justice Department personnel, who have been working on the Floyd case for months, met with Minneapolis police leaders on Wednesday morning to inform them of Garland’s decision.

In separate statements, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (D) and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said they welcomed the federal investigation.

“This is a defining moment of truth and reconciliation in America,” Frey said. “George Floyd’s life mattered, just as Daunte Wright’s, Breonna Taylor’s and so many others did.”

Wright and Taylor, who were Black, died in encounters with law enforcement in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Louisville, respectively.

The Minneapolis City Council, which has been frustrated in its efforts to conduct oversight of the police department since last summer, said it was willing to help the Justice Department “use the full weight of its authority” to hold police accountable.

What’s next for Derek Chauvin and the other Minneapolis police officers tied to George Floyd’s death?

Jared Fishman, a former federal civil rights prosecutor, called the announcement “hugely significant” and said it could signal that the Justice Department would once again use its considerable legal muscle to try to force police reforms. The Obama administration had opened 25 investigations into local law enforcement agencies and enforced 14 court-approved consent decrees mandating changes.

Yet Fishman cautioned that the efficacy of such settlements can sometimes be stymied because local departments or prosecutors’ offices lack the resources or expertise to make the changes federal officials recommend.

“It’s not enough to call out a department for unconstitutional practices. The next step is helping them fix it,” said Fishman, who now runs the Justice Innovation Lab, helping implement reforms at prosecutors’ offices. “I hope the [Biden] administration is willing to put their money where their mouths are, because departments are not going to be able to correct the constitutional problems on their own.”

In his remarks on Wednesday, Garland said the federal agency has already begun to contact community leaders in Minneapolis to gather information for the probe. He pledged to issue a public report if officials determine that the police department has violated the law.

Garland will have experienced help. On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted to confirm Vanita Gupta, a civil rights lawyer, to serve as the Justice Department’s No. 3 official and oversee its civil division. Gupta led the agency’s civil rights division during the Obama administration and helped direct several investigations into police departments.

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The Chauvin trial drew significant public attention, but legal analysts cautioned against reading too much into its outcome. Individual cases of officer misconduct, they said, are not a substitute for the more sweeping, systemic changes to policing — including cutting funding — sought by many activists.

The Minneapolis police force took on an outsize role in the Chauvin case. The former officer’s defense argued that he was following the department’s training, while a string of veteran and senior officers, including the police chief, testified that Chauvin was not abiding by official procedure.

The Minneapolis department’s tactics have faced federal scrutiny before.

In 2015, a local police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Black man, and demonstrators responded by occupying the area around the city’s 4th Precinct police station for 18 days.

A review released by the Justice Department in 2017 found that demonstrators reported being hit with chemical irritants while trying to aid people shot amid those protests or struck by nightsticks while trying to protect themselves from chemicals.

The review found a “fractured relationship and history of mistrust among Black residents in North Minneapolis, city government” and the city’s police department.

After Floyd’s death, the Trump administration, under then-Attorney General William P. Barr, opened a civil rights investigation into Chauvin’s use of force, including pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while the man was on the ground.

But Barr and his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had opposed broader federal efforts to root out systemic problems within local law enforcement agencies. In 2018, Sessions moved to ban the department from pursuing consent decrees that established strict reform measures for police departments found to have engaged in abusive tactics, often under the guide of a monitor — powerful legal tools that had been used by the administrations of Barack Obama and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush.

Last week, Garland rescinded Sessions’s memo.

Consent decrees can be necessary for departments, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with law enforcement agencies. Still, he noted the timing of Garland’s announcement, coming so soon after an arduous trial in which police both testified and prepared for a major reaction.

For the Minneapolis department, he said, “waking up to this has to be hard.”

Holly Bailey in Minneapolis contributed to this report.